Greg Craig jury selection: A very D.C. scene

The nation’s capital city is a small, small town after all.

That truth was on display on Wednesday as jury selection for the looming trial of Greg Craig, the former Obama White House counsel, played out in federal court.

No one was formally picked for the 12-person jury that will consider Craig’s guilt or innocence on a false-statement charge stemming from special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, but the process for weeding out those who couldn’t or shouldn’t sit in judgment of the veteran Democratic lawyer turned up a variety of political allegiances, personal connections and employment that could be problematic.

Some of those ties got potential jurors kicked out of the pool for the case, but U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman retained about two-thirds of the roughly 50 potential jurors questioned in court on Wednesday.

At times, it seemed as though Craig’s trial might give a whole new meaning to the phrase “jury of one’s peers.” At least two former White House officials were in the jury pool called to hear the charges against Craig, who served as a White House lawyer during President Bill Clinton’s impeachment and as White House counsel to President Barack Obama in his first year.

Bruce Reed, the domestic policy guru and a veteran of the Obama and Clinton White Houses, was among a set of jurors called in Monday and excused by the judge. Yet another Clinton White House official emerged in Wednesday’s batch: John Gibson, a former speechwriter for the National Security Council.

Gibson, who now works for Fannie Mae, told the court he “admired” Craig but didn’t really know him. Gibson said he went to law school with a potential character witness for Craig, Cheryl Mills, a former aide to Hillary Clinton, and holds her in very high esteem.

Prosecutors urged Jackson to strike Gibson because of his feelings about the defendant, but Craig’s team resisted. The judge tossed Gibson anyway.

The other side of the aisle was also pulled into the process on Wednesday. A Republican political consultant who’s married to a senior Trump appointee at the Department of Health and Human Services was questioned late in the day. The potential juror said he works on digital outreach for House and Senate candidates, as well as on presidential campaigns.

“Some might find it a conflict of interest,” the man said of his GOP ties, although he insisted he could be fair. No objection was raised by either side, so he remained in the pool. Either side could strike him on Thursday when attorneys get a chance to remove jurors without having to provide a reason in most instances. Opening statements are expected later Thursday morning.

With active members of both political parties in the jury pool, it seemed fitting that another major D.C. constituency also be represented: the Fourth Estate.

Vox reporter Andrew Prokop, who has written repeatedly on the Mueller investigation and its offshoots, was among those summoned Wednesday. He expressed disappointment that the judge never made it to him in the screening process.

“Sadly I was too far down the list to get the opportunity to go before Judge Amy Berman Jackson and explain that I had some, er, outside knowledge about the case,” Prokop wrote on Twitter. “It would have been fun to say ‘not only have I read about this case in the media, I have written about this case in the media,’ but alas, things don’t always work out.”

Another potential juror who did make it to the questioning stage was quick to disclose to the judge a high-level media connection that might be an issue.

“My boyfriend is a reporter for The New York Times,” she declared, jolting awake members of the press corps who had slipped into a late-afternoon daze.

The D.C. telecom attorney said that her significant other had been covering Mueller’s investigation, but she insisted that the tie “would not affect” how she’d consider evidence in the case and that she would not watch news reports about the case or discuss it with her boyfriend for the duration of the trial.

The prestigious newspaper figures in the broader narrative of the case because Craig is accused, in part, of lying about his dealings with another Times reporter given a scoop on the Ukraine report, David Sanger.

The woman remained in the pool after neither side objected, to the apparent surprise of the judge.

Craig, facing a single felony charge, is accused of seeking to deceive the Justice Department several years ago when it began asking questions about his work on a report that Craig prepared for the Ukrainian government inquiry on the trial and conviction of former the Ukrainian prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko on corruption charges.

At least one potential juror quickly encapsulated one of the most intriguing aspects of the prosecution: Craig is the most prominent Democrat to face charges in a case emerging from Mueller’s probe.

“I followed the special counsel’s investigation with some interest, and I was surprised a person who worked for President Obama was implicated in the matter,” said one man, a contractor who gathers data and statistics for the Department of Health and Human Services.

The daylong process also demonstrated that many Washingtonians closely follow the news, paid some — or, in some cases, a lot — of attention to the Mueller report and have strong feelings about one of Mueller’s most prominent targets: the longtime GOP political consultant and lobbyist Paul Manafort.

Manafort figures in the Craig case not just because of the Mueller link but because Manafort had many dealings with Craig as he prepared the 2012 report at the heart of the case. Manafort was a key representative for the Ukrainian president at the time, Viktor Yanukovych, and interacted with Craig about timing, payment and release of the review.

Jackson sought to alert jurors to Manafort’s role, but defense lawyers repeatedly urged her not to overstate it. The judge said she was just trying to identify potential jurors who held Manafort in such disdain that it would be hard not to let it affect their attitude toward Craig. Quite a few said just that.

“I guess — I mean, I hold his work in contempt, that’s all,” the HHS contractor declared of Manafort.

“I would say I’m very biased against him. … It’s hard not to be,” the first woman questioned on Wednesday said, adding that it “could” impact her ability to be fair to Craig. She previously worked at the State Department and now works for the Food & Drug Administration.

She was excused, as was a former telecom lobbyist who said it would be “a struggle” not to hold against Craig his work with Manafort.

Few potential jurors seemed to know much about Ukraine or the political rivalry that led to Craig’s 2012 report, but one was concerned she might know too much: a CIA analyst who covers the former Soviet republic.

“I know large amounts of classified information about Ukraine,” she said.

“Would you be able to turn your CIA analyst brain off and focus on just what you hear in the courtroom?” the judge asked.

“What if someone says something about someone and I know something about it?” the woman replied. “Obviously, I can’t say anything.”

To the judge’s apparent surprise, neither side objected, so the CIA analyst remained in the pool.

Wednesday was a Groundhog Day of sorts for Craig, his lawyers and the prosecutor because the process reached this stage on Monday of this week, only to be tossed out by the judge on Tuesday because of concerns that her decision to keep individual juror questioning private might have violated Craig’s right to a public trial. After calling 70 jurors for Monday, she summoned a new set of 120 jurors for Wednesday to start over again.

One potential juror, a contract accountant for the Defense Department, said he had read the Mueller report and saw on the news Tuesday night that the judge had dismissed the jury because of “a number of conflicts and associations.”

“Let me just tell you that’s not what happened,” the judge said.

“Well, that’s what was on the news,” the man replied.